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Grand jury to review land deal

The panel to look into Pinellas' purchase of the property appraiser's parcel.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published July 27, 2007


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A Pinellas grand jury agreed Thursday to investigate the County Commission's controversial purchase last month of Property Appraiser Jim Smith's private land for $225,000.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe initiated the investigation after a series of stories in the St. Petersburg Times.

It is thought to be the first such examination of a local government in Pinellas County since 1995. That year, a grand jury focused on Kenneth City Police Department officials.

The involvement of the grand jury came as the different players in the drama lined up legal representation.

Next week, the commission will consider whether to hire outside legal counsel to represent its interests before the grand jury.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said the inquiry is necessary.

"We've been damaged terribly by this," Welch said. "I think it's needed, quite frankly, in order to restore public trust."

Smith, 67, Pinellas' elected property appraiser since 1988, retained Clearwater attorney Lou Kwall. He said he welcomed the grand jury's work.

"The truth will be heard," Smith said, "and I think that's going to be good for me."

The county initiated the land buy in March after Smith complained work crews had damaged his vacant East Lake lot during flood control work.

Exactly what the grand jury hears about the land transaction won't be disclosed. Nor is it clear how broad a net it will cast in calling witnesses and investigating Pinellas government.

Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public. Its 21 members, randomly selected citizens, are barred from talking publicly about their activities. And those who testify before them can't disclose information either.

Grand juries in Florida have broad investigative authority. They can examine criminal activity as well as noncriminal ethical and legal violations. The state Supreme Court gives them the authority to investigate whether public officials have been "incompetent or lax in the performance of their duties."

McCabe's office said the current grand jury will begin considering the matter Thursday at the county Criminal Court Complex in Clearwater.

The current jury was convened in May and will sit until the end of November. Grand jury terms can be extended.

County officials now acknowledge the purchase of Smith's 1.5-acre parcel was handled irregularly and too quickly. The County Commission voted June 5 to buy the land, at nearly four times what Smith's own office had valued the property at for tax purposes.

The deal came only after Smith's intense lobbying of several top officials, the threat of a lawsuit from his private attorney and County Attorney Susan Churuti's unusual agreement to represent Smith's interests in the deal.

But those key details were withheld initially from the public. And Churuti did not disclose her dual role to the County Commission.

"It shouldn't have happened," Welch said. "You can't represent the county and an individual who is threatening a lawsuit against the county and trying to sell the county land."

Staff writer Curtis Krueger and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 727-445-4166.

[Last modified July 27, 2007, 00:05:05]


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